Hands on, screens off

While digital entertainment and play are more pervasive than ever, recent fads point to a resurgence of multi-sensory, real-world engagement.
July 21, 2017

By Ricardo Maldonado and Wynne Tyree

The ubiquity of screens in kids’ lives has meant that their connection to the physical world is fading. Today, kids would much rather tap their 2D screens than experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of the 3D world. Right?

Not so fast. While preschoolers, kids and tweens do love their devices and the content they house, they are still drawn to the multi-sensory experiences of real-world play. In fact, there appears to be a resurgence of screen-free entertainment—ironically fueled and reinforced by YouTube videos.

Look no further than recent trends in flipping water bottles, making slime, “wearing” food, and, of course, whirling those fidget spinners. Together, they’re a clear reminder that screens will never fully replace the physical world and all of its tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory sensations.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of these “sense-ible” play trends.

The modern-day spinning top

The hottest plaything of 2017 has, no doubt, been the fidget spinner. These low-tech gadgets were originally marketed as a way to help those with ADHD, autism and anxiety relieve stress and release nervous energy. But fast-forward a few months, and more than 80% of six- to 12-year-olds say fidget spinners are “really popular now,” and nearly seven in 10 are current users. (Source: Smarty Pants 2017 Brand Love study)

Fidget spinners are inexpensive, portable, conducive to individual and peer challenges, and curiously addictive. The fun has less to do with a need to fidget and more to do with kids’ fascination with the fast, seemingly frictionless spinning—just like the whirling top from days of old. Kids love to see how long they can keep the spin “live” and to reposition themselves and/or the spinner while it’s still going.

Cool new videos of fidget spinner tricks and challenges are added to YouTube every day, feeding the frenzy. The result is that most schools across the US have banned the once-encouraged contraptions—an inequivocal stamp of “it thing” status.

The popularity of the fidget spinner has given rise to its cousin, the fidget cube. With its toggle switch, buttons, joystick-glider, metal ball and gears, the fidget cube delivers seemingly limitless tactile (and auditory) delight—so much, in fact, that a new 12-sided version has been developed.


The flip of a coin bottle

When it comes to tactile challenges of 2017, nothing has been more conspicuous than water bottle flipping. From playgrounds to airports to kitchen tables, kids have spent the last several months combining partially filled bottles with hand-eye coordination to try to make bottles land upright—or even upside-down.

The experience is inexpensive and accessible, and it can provide countless hours of screen-free entertainment. The play pattern is sometimes solitary, and sometimes competitive with peers, siblings and/or parents. But it always involves physical engagement in the real world. The only screens in sight are the ones kids might be holding to capture their share-worthy successes, or to watch the “Whoa!” videos of others.

Next-gen putty

Kids aren’t just spinning and flipping in 2017; they’re experiencing the multi-sensory joys of slime—with all of its textures, colors and scents. The slime trend also taps into hands-on kid creativity, because they are making it themselves. Yes, homemade slime is all the rage—not the simple, grey putty of yesterday, or even Play-Doh.

Thanks to Elmer’s glue, cornstarch, water, food coloring, beads, glitter, extracts and more, kids across the US are getting their hands gooey with this seemingly supernatural substance. They’re crafting their very own recipes using unique combinations of ingredients, starting their own businesses selling custom slime creations to their peers (and adults), and sharing tips and tricks through how-to videos.

Again, YouTube helped to create and fuel the trend. Instagram, too, boasts more than 3.4 million posts with the hashtag #slime, not to mention the millions of slime posts on Pinterest and Snapchat.

The new taste of childhood

The idea that food can be fun for kids is not new, but recent trends show that food has become a great medium for multi-sensory play. It delivers on all five senses, and it facilitates boundless creativity.

Take the Jelly Belly Bean Boozled game, for example. It requires kids to try various flavors of jelly beans, but any given bean could be a familiar, delicious food or a repulsive shocker like lawn clippings or dog food. The experience is based on dares, which naturally facilitates peer (or family) fun. It creates excitement and stimulates the senses.

Pie Face is another recent success story involving food-based fun. With little more than a can of whipped cream, a spinner and a simple mechanical arm, kids can experience getting a pie in the face and the thrill of pie-ing others. Like so many other examples, it’s old-school fun with a 2017 twist.

The new fun being had with food also owes much to YouTube. Kids are drawn to the millions of home videos that depict young people trying things for the first time, competing against friends or siblings (or themselves), and sharing creative ideas.

The “real vs. gummy” food challenge is a great example. The gist: Two kids try both a burger and a gummy burger to decide which tastes better. They then describe both in detail as if they were Food Network stars. Another common series is the “eat it or wear it” challenge. Kids are tasked with eating surprising things; but if they won’t (or if they spit them out), the food is dumped on their heads. The fun is not only in the taste and experimentation, it’s also in the temperature, texture and feeling of “wearing” the food.

Don’t forget the classics

While recent fads and trends speak to contemporary twists on real-world fun, there are classic brands that still delight. Think Lego, Nerf, Hot Wheels and Easy-Bake Oven. Kids still enjoy the feel, sounds, smells and hands-on experiences of these timeless offerings.

A look ahead

Yes, digital play and entertainment are more pervasive than ever, but analog play is not dead. Kids are still kids—and they still love to engage with their unique, three-dimensional world. (Experts agree that it’s how they learn and grow!)

In a fascinating way, screens are reminding kids to reach out and touch the world around them. Analog experiences are not at odds with digital play. We can and should continue to create for both digital and “sense-ible” play, and when possible, find ways to marry the two.

Wynne Tyree is president of Smarty Pants, a youth and family research and consulting firm. Ricardo Maldonado serves as the company’s Syndicated Sage. This research is derived from the company’s daily in-person and digital immersion into kids’ and families’ lives, as well as proprietary quantitative research. For more information contact Meredith Franck at 914-939-1897 or visit

About The Author
Wynne Tyree is the founder and president of Smarty Pants, a youth and family market research and consulting firm. She is also a leading authority on kids’ digital engagement and IP development. Contact Wynne at



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